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Louisiana rice farmers get late start, finish fast

Last Modified: Saturday, September 14, 2013 1:21 PM

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Despite late planting due to a cold, wet spring, Louisiana's rice crop is looking good, while planting problems in Arkansas may boost U.S. rice prices a bit.

"I think we'll establish a record" for pounds per acre, said Johnny Saichuk, rice expert for the LSU AgCenter. Though final harvest figures aren't in, he said the 2013 crop has been helped by the fact that low temperatures on very few summer nights were above 75 degrees.

"It's the best crop we've had in a long, long time," said farmer Jim Lingo of Oak Grove in West Carroll Parish. He said Monday that he hadn't yet begun harvesting his 320 acres of rice, but his father and brother, who have about 1,000 acres in rice, were reaping an early harvest well above average.

Prices may rise a bit because the cold, wet weather that delayed Louisiana's planting kept some farmers in Arkansas — the nation's usual top producer — from planting at all.

Although the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that Arkansas farmers planted just over 1 million acres, University of Arkansas extension service rice expert Jerrod Hardke thinks it's closer to 975,000. That's nearly 25 percent less than planned and would be the first time in about three decades that fewer than 1 million acres have been planted in Arkansas, he said.

"We were looking at planting intentions of 1.25 million acres," Hardke said.

Saichuk estimated that Louisiana farmers planted up to 400,000 acres this season — in the ballpark of last year's 391,000 acres.

California planted 550,000 acres, Missouri 164,000, Mississippi 160,000 and Texas 130,000, according to USDA estimates.

Louisiana's rice acreage never recovered from Hurricane Rita, which hit the southwest part of the state about a month after Katrina hit the southeast in 2005, Saichuk said. Farmers had planted an average of 508,000 acres a year since 2000, but the 2006 total fell to 347,000. USDA figures — generally higher than state figures — put the average from 2006 on at 431,000 acres.

"Certainly a smaller crop in Arkansas would push the prices up for all the farmers," AgCenter economist Mike Salassi said.

He said prices have trended up from $14.50 per 100 pounds, or hundredweight, in August 2012 to $15.50 this past July.

Salassi attributes some of the increase to crop estimates. He also said that the United States produces too little rice to affect world prices. About 1.2 percent of the world's milled rice comes from the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The current price "is close to or just above break-even" for farmers, Salassi said, because production costs — particularly fuel and fertilizer — have risen so much. "Even when you have stable prices and yield, you're still a little behind where you were in the previous year."

The record yield, set in 2011, is 6,717 pounds per acre — or, as Louisiana farmers figure it, 41.5 barrels at 162 pounds each in the south of the state and 149.3 bushels (45 pounds each) in northern parishes.

Lingo said early harvests this year for his father and brother have ranged from 190 to 220 bushels per acre, compared with an average of 160 to 180 bushels.

However, "green yields" at harvest are generally higher than official yields, noted Steve Linscombe, director of the LSU AgCenter Rice Research Station in Crowley.

"As the rice is coming out of the field, it could be 20 to 21 percent grain moisture. Our official reported yields are always at 12 percent grain moisture, after they've been dried," he said.

What's more important, Linscombe said, is early indications of high milling quality.

"Starting with 100 pounds of paddy or rough rice, when you mill it, you want to end up with 70 pounds of milled rice — and you want at least 60 pounds to be whole grain," he said. Linscomb said a Crowley mill manager said his early percentages are slightly higher than those figures.

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